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BWW Reviews: Playhouse's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE Would Make Chekhov Giggle

I wonder if Jackie Nichols is providing on-site psychiatric help for those involved in the repertory presentations of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL and Christopher Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at Playhouse on the Square. Surely the veteran Irene Crist, performing double duty as Director of both the uber-heavy Chekhov piece and the giddy Durang parody, is on a schizoid seesaw as she veers from the serious to the silly - and the same might be said from the cast members who swap costumes and take their characterizations from one play to the next. Having just seen THE SEAGULL last week, I was eager to see how Durang's TONY-winning play would parlay all that Chekhovian talk about artists and pseudo-artists into something more laughter-inducing. However, rest assured that the talents involved in both plays rise (or fall, as it were) without any difficulty.

After watching both works, I was reminded of Paramount's legendary writer-director Preston Sturges and his tackling of the same issues in the Joel McCrae-Veronica Lake classic SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Sullivan, after all, decides that he wants to "rough it" on the road in order to gain the experience necessary to make the great motion picture and, Chekhov-like, have something important to say. However, after getting a bit more experience than he likes (i.e., a Southern chain gang), he has an epiphany while watching a MICKEY MOUSE cartoon along with his laughing fellow inmates. The laughter elicited by an absurdly comic artist like Durang, who clearly has a knowing (and winking) insight into the theatrical world he inhabits, is not to be discounted.

Exchanging Sorin's Russian estate for a family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang has "trapped" brother "Vanya," who is gay, and determinedly bitter sister "Sonia" in a Chekhovian environment, bemoaning their plight and envious of their movie star sister "Masha," who is actually more like "Madame Arkadina" in THE SEAGULL, a "drama queen" who arrives with her latest, "toy boy," the perpetually disrobing "Spike." As in Chekhov's play, there's a "Nina," again played by the versatile Morgan Howard, wishing to be an actress just as that character did in THE SEAGULL. Now, while a knowledge of Chekhov only adds to the enjoyment of the parody, it is important to note that you don't have to be familiar with it in order to enjoy the merriment that ensues from this production. This supremely giddy little balloon soars above the somber, earthbound Russian landscapes of Chekhov.

Several actors play variations on their characters from the Chekhov play - glamorous Tamara Scott is again the diva of the piece, but enjoying herself immensely as the preening, spotlight-hogging "Masha"; and the aforementioned Ms. Howard fawns entertainingly all over the stage as the worshipful "Nina" (and again, she has a memorably molecular "speech" in a play within a play). However, Jo Lynne Palmer is cast here as the housekeeper "Cassandra," and, like "Helga ten Dorp" in DEATHTRAP, proves a delightful scene-stealer (she sticks pins in a voodoo doll-by-way-of-Disney with a particularly mischievous glee). Josh Tucker is a visual and comic treat as the air-headed "toy boy" "Spike," forever stripping down to his assets and texting (as anyone of his generation is wont to do). (By the way, his physique has nowhere to go but . . . down: Costume Designer Rebecca Y. Powell didn't have to take long to work with him. Note to self: Must set aside those eclairs.) As the homebound "Vanya" and "Sonia," Michael Gravois and Sarah Brown are sheer delights; and they have the advantage of two of Mr. Durang's best speeches. Ms. Brown is very touching as the lonely, despairing "Sonia"; she attends a masquerade party dressed as the wicked stepmother of "Snow White," but she might as well have been "Cinderella," as she unexpectedly receives a phone call from someone at the party. The sweetness of the writing here, combined with her surprised and touching performance, is particularly affecting. However, when Spike's thoughtless texting interrupts a play that Vanya has written, Michael Gravois has an impassioned speech that any actor would love to commit to memory - and he delivers it brilliantly. ("Baby Boomers" will want to stand and applaud.) In short, this is a terrific ensemble, and everyone seems to be having as much fun as the audience. Through March 29.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)